The Crimean "referendum" has been damned in the West as a sham, and its merger with Russia as nothing more than a military annexation, but it's clear that the West has been out-foxed by Vladimir Putin, yet again.
I've described in a previous article about Putin's perspective on the "revolution" in Kiev. In simple terms, "regaining" Crimea was opportunism gained from the position of the new and weak Ukrainian government. The West supported a "coup" against Putin's ally, Yanukovich, so Putin then supported a parliamentary coup in Crimea a few days afterwards. Crimea's new prime minister, Sergei Aksyunov, prior to the events in Kiev, was a non-entity in Crimea, with a history as a former gangster and smuggler in "Transdnistria", the internationally-unrecognised (pro-Russian) statelet on the eastern side of the Dniestr in Moldova, along Ukraine's western border; after unidentified armed men took control of Crimea's parliament, he was nominated as the new prime minister, and promptly declared Crimea's unilateral independence, to be confirmed in a referendum later on. In other words, Crimea has become the latest appendage of what has been called a "Mafia State", appropriately ran by a former gangster.
The Ukrainian game
Russia's behaviour since the new interim government was established in Kiev shows a consistent pattern: provocation, propaganda and psychological terror. This follows the same behaviour that led to the Georgia war in 2008; Russia provoking, Georgia rising to the bait, only to be hammered, leaving Putin's gambit successful. The 2008 war left Georgia's semi-detached regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia permanently out of their grasp and firmly in Russia's control, even if not recognised by the rest of the world.
Putin's view of the government in Kiev is both ambivalent and mocking. He is ambivalent due to the worrying precedent that the "revolution" represents to his control over Russia, and the real concern he has that it could spread to Moscow.
To that end, he treats the interim government as though it doesn't really exist, using the language of legitimacy and the fear of fascism to breed anti-Ukrainian propaganda in the Russophone sphere. The Russian media is full of exaggerated coverage of violence in the Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine, and the "provocative" behaviour and words of the new Kiev government.
At the same time, Russia's acts appear as everything short of full-on war: Ukraine is Putin's psychological game on a grand scale; "prodding" Ukraine's military (like with Georgia's in 2008) time and time again, using a wide variety of methods, to see if they will react, and therefore justify war; creating an atmosphere of fear and anticipation in Ukraine through military manoeuvres, provoking Ukraine's government to mobilise its forces, obligating Russia to do the same, and bring the situation closer to war; instigating violence in the east and south of Ukraine, to display the impotence of the Kiev government in controlling its own people, while at the same time blaming Kiev for the violence.
Putin is the puppet-master in this psychological power-play, manipulating events, toying with Kiev's government, while at the same time gaining adulation at home. And that doesn't even begin to deal with Putin's play with the West, as the master chess player, as well as an expert poker player of the West's impotence.
The return of the irridentism menace
I've compared these events to those of 1914 before. Politicians often prefer to play events according to the last war, which is why Western comparisons to a "new Cold War" are understandable, if inaccurate. Similarly, wilder comparisons of Putin's behaviour to that of Hitler are also far off the mark.
While some of Putin's tactics might resemble those last used by the Soviet Union, and why Putin's behaviour might seem similar to the cold-blooded fanaticism of Hitler, Putin's motivations seem more similar to those of Serbian nationalists that justified the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in late June, 1914. Serbian nationalists in the early twentieth century were obsessed with the "restoration" of Serb lands to the Serbian state. These people said that wherever there were Serbs, that was Serbia; borders and other ethnicities were irrelevant. Many in the Kremlin seem to have the same view about Russians.
In this way, Russia in 2014 is far similar to Russia in 1914: irridentism fuels the Kremlin's "near abroad" strategy. Whether this is a means to an end - stability and power throughout the Russian-speaking world, and an effective restoration of the Russian Empire - or a genuine cultural belief, is immaterial. The evidence suggests that Putin's interest in Russian irridentism is simply one of cynical convenience and opportunism: a means to project power at home by increasing it abroad.
The cultural clock is turning back to a hundred years ago. Serb nationalists are in Crimea, projecting their irridentist faith just like in 1914. At the same time, now Poland has rediscovered its historical (Catholic) links to Lithuania and Ukraine, by planning a joint military brigade of the three countries forces (against Russia). This last development is the most worrying for the West. As I mentioned in a previous article:
"While the rest of Europe and America may dismiss some of their fears as paranoia, the fact that there are a large number of East European countries in NATO means that the number of variables increases accordingly. If Russia decided to invade Ukraine, it is unclear what the reaction of Eastern Europe (especially Poland) would be; history and emotion are two very powerful motivations that can make governments and statesmen do irrational things"
It was always the reactions of the Eastern European countries that would be most likely to drag the rest of NATO into the ultimate nightmare confrontation with Russia. A similar point can be made about Turkey, and its cultural and historical ties to the Crimean Tatars.
No, this is no "new Cold War": it's potentially much more serious than that. To learn more about the history, it's better to look back to the continental situation one hundred years ago, or that during the many European wars of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Looking around the world, China is an acquiescent (if awkward) companion to Russia's world view; India's role has been to firmly sit on the fence. While Europe and the USA appear united, no-one is sure how long that will last if (or more accurately, when) their sanctions on Russia are returned in kind. Meanwhile, centuries of historical forces are returning to the European theatre, with no-one having any idea where things will lead; we may all have modern technology, but we're are as infallible and complacent as a hundred years ago.
All it needs is a spark.
(Update, Tuesday, 18 March
Vladimir Putin gave a speech to grant Crimea into Russian rule proper, using this as another opportunity to emphasize his angle on events, the "legitimacy" of Crimean independence, using Western precedents as in previous speeches, while calling into question the legitimacy of the Kiev government and his concerns at the "instability" in Ukraine towards Russian speakers; at the same time, he makes claims of Russia's non-aggression while simultaneously questioning the stance of Kiev.
With exquisite timing, shortly after the conclusion of this speech and the formal inclusion of Crimea into Russia, Russian troops storm a Ukrainian base in Crimea, resulting in shots being fired, and a soldier killed. Russia claims that the victim was one of Crimea's "self-defence forces", while Ukraine says it was a Ukrainian serviceman shot by the Russians.
Is this the spark to the next "act" of Putin's power-play?
Also, I mentioned in the above article about the planned joint brigade of Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine, which would doubtlessly be seen by the Kremlin as a provocation, and a method of informally including Ukraine into NATO's orbit. This is an example of NATO being callously and dangerously used as a vehicle for centuries-old historical issues, as western Ukraine belonged to Poland-Lithuania until the late 18th century; something I alluded to previously (see the last couple of paragraphs in the linked article).
Turkey is similarly using historical and emotional links to Crimea's Tatars, as Erdogan is reported to today have threatened Putin with closing the Turkish straights to Russia if violence against Tatars escalates. Such an act could only be considered tantamount to war by Putin if carried out.
Poland and Turkey are showing themselves to be the "weak points" in NATO in regards to Russia. Like in 1914, it was the Balkans that provided the spark to a European war; it is Poland and Turkey's reaction to Russia's actions in Crimea and Ukraine that could provide a domino effect that drags in all of NATO.)